The VDI landscape: An introduction, overview and exploration

Virtual desktop infrastructure: What exactly is it, anyway? You may think you know, but the phrase has entered the buzzword danger zone. The truth is revealed in this tip.

VDI, or Virtual Desktop Infrastructure, is quickly entering the buzzword danger zone. In this six-part series, I'll explore what VDI is, why people use it, and what the various vendors are doing in this space. I'll also break down what's real today and what's hype.

The VDI concept is simple. Instead of giving a user a desktop PC running a copy of Windows XP or Vista (I'll just call this "Windows XP" from now on), you "virtualize" your desktops by running them on a server in a datacenter. The user connects to the virtualized desktop via a thin-client computing protocol from their client device—be it a thin client device or home PC—where they access their desktop as if it were a traditional locally installed desktop.

On the backend, the virtualized desktops are typically provided in one of two ways:

  • A VMware Server of Microsoft Virtual Server that runs a whole bunch of Windows XP VMs, and each user connects to their VM in a one-to-one way.
  • An enclosure of blades that's loaded with Windows XP blades, and each user connects to a blade in a one-to-one way. (This method is sometimes called a "bladed PC.")

Either way, the idea is that the end user can use any device they want. They can connect to their desktop from anywhere, and IT can more easily manage the desktop since it's contained within the walls of the datacenter.

What's really interesting about this VDI approach is that while these technologies are new, the concept of providing a desktop as a service is now more than a decade old. Traditional server-based computing solutions, like Citrix Presentation Server or Microsoft terminal server, have been offering VDI solutions for the past ten years. (The primary difference of course being that server-based computing solutions deliver personalized desktops on shared instances of Windows, while VDI solutions give each user their own Windows machine.)

That said, the server-based computing industry has evolved over the past several years to focus less on server-based computing, and more on delivery applications to users. Though this lens, the desktop is just another application that users need to access, and that IT needs to provide.

As we look at what that means today, it's important to point out that no one is really suggesting that traditional local desktops be thrown out and replaced with VDI solutions (just like ten years ago, no one really suggested that traditional desktops be thrown out and replaced with server-based computing applications).

The companies who have been most successful with server-based computing are those who evaluated their needs on an application-by-application basis, or a situation-by-situation basis. Today most companies who use server-based computing use it as part of a holistic solution that's made up of a blend of technologies that provide the right application delivery method for the right scenario.

VDI is no different. It's not the be-all, end-all desktop delivery mechanism. It's just another option for providing desktops to users that can solve some big challenges of traditional local desktops or server-based computing desktops.

In Part two of this series, we'll compare the relative merits of VDI, server-based computing, and traditional local desktops, and look at in which scenarios each one makes the most sense.

This was first published in January 2007
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